Did a European ship reach the beaches of Cuba 500 years before Columbus?

[Many thanks to Peter Jordens for bringing this item to our attention.] Miguel Gutiérrez-Garitano (El Correo) writes, “In the 1950s, the remains of a ship five centuries older than Columbus’ Santa María were discovered in the sands of Havana; only photographs and wood fragments remain from the discovery, since it was covered with sand and has not reappeared.” Here are excerpts from El Correo.

The news went unnoticed by almost everyone: Cuba was in moments of turmoil, ruled by the Batista dictatorship and in full pre-revolutionary fervor. It was then that a storm exposed the remains of a shipwreck off the coast of Havana, in the area between Tarará and Santa María, to the east of the city. It was, the experts thought, the first foreign ship to arrive on the shores of Cuba. In fact, word spread that it was a Viking ship, which delighted popular imagination. In spite of it all, given the political and economic situation, the investigation by the team that found it—from the Speleological Society of Havana—did not go any further: the boat was covered to preserve it, after taking some photographs and keeping a few scraps of wood.

Starting in 2003, however, Cuban historian, archaeologist and explorer Daniel Torres Etayo picked up the trail and shouldered the responsibility of clarifying the enigma when photographs and samples from the hull of the ship reappeared by chance. The authorities sent the samples to the Kon-Tiki Museum in Norway to be analyzed and dated. Thus, it was possible to know that it was a ship from the year 790 of our era. In the analysis, fragments of iron appeared, a metal that was not known then in America. The photographs reported a helmet of great proportions; and the data pointed more towards a European vessel than a Scandinavian one, or perhaps African.

The discovery became a revolution. Although Daniel Torres said, «There are some—he commented in an interview for the newspaper Juventud Rebelde in 2012—who say that this could change history. But honestly, I don’t think that will happen, because the one who changed it was Christopher Columbus in 1492. Also, the fact that others could have reached our waters first is not uncommon. We have documented cases of Iberian fishermen who, in colonial times, got lost in storms while fishing for herring and ended up in the Caribbean without meaning to. The Atlantic did not represent a physical obstacle. The handicap was rather psychological. This ship could have been one of those, which does not mean that the crew settled in. I may even have arrived without people », he underlined.

Famous for his studies of the Taíno bateyes—a kind of ceremonial square where pre-Columbian indigenous people practiced a type of ball game—and a series of shipwrecks distributed along the coasts of the Greater Antilles, such as the Ciudad de Alejandría, a steam that made the New York-Havana route and that sank in the 19th century with all its passengers on board, the works of this Cuban scholar has gone beyond the borders of the island. In 2011, Daniel Torres Etayo had the honor of receiving from the National Geographic Society, the Emerging Explorer award, which includes 10,000 dollars in addition to a series of means to improve research. Unfortunately, the economic blockade that Cuba suffers from the US prevents Torres’ group of researchers from being able to enjoy the money; they also have great difficulties in bringing to the island some of the machinery or pieces of equipment necessary to illuminate an enigma whose resolution is considered an almost impossible mission.

Despite the precariousness of means, the team limited the search area, from three initial kilometers to an area of ​​100 by 80 meters. The great difficulty involved in searching in sand and technical deficiencies, however, have made it impossible to determine an exact location. According to journalist and researcher Juan Antonio Sanz López, who lived in Cuba and researched the case, the search area is not easy. «They are beaches with shoals and small gulfs. And there’s a lot, a lot of sand.” The same Torres team acknowledges that by limiting the search area they were able to leave the wreck out. It is therefore a matter of looking for “a needle in a haystack.” Sanz also suspects that the authorities make the search difficult, as he assures has already happened with other famous cases. What will be done if it reappears? The team does not plan to unearth the rest, as this would be very expensive, and its preservation would be impossible. It is a matter, say the experts, of simply extracting a new sample to elucidate whether the dating carried out by the Kon-Tiki Museum is correct or not. “It could have been a Viking longship or a Saxon ship. Or an older Basque whaler, but in that case, the dating would have been wrong,” says Juan Antonio Sanz. The expert insists that since 2012 there has been an “absolute silence” around this exploration. But he thinks the wreck is still there, waiting to be rediscovered. Meanwhile, the mystery continues.

[Translated by Ivette Romero.] For full article, see https://www.elcorreo.com/tiempo-de-historias/llego-playas-cuba-20220718100330-nt.html

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